Sunday, March 23, 2014

Where the Moon Isn't by Nathan Filer (2013)

Our latest Debbie Downer book club read (for which, as you might remember, we only read depressing books) is Where the Moon Isn't by Nathan Filer (2013) [published as The Shock of the Fall in the UK].

Our narrator is Matthew, a schizophrenic young man in Bristol, England.When Matthew was a child, he and his older brother Simon, who had Down Syndrome, snuck out of their family's vacation rental late at night. Matthew deliberately scares his brother who ends up having a tragic accident and dying.

Fast-forward ten years and Matthew is under professional care. He is alternately committed to a mental hospital or living on his own but coming into a day program for therapy, activities, and his mandated medication. Before he was hospitalized he had moved out of his parents house into his own apartment and then quickly started hearing his brother Simon talking to him. This escalated into a full-blown obsessive crazy person scenario that ultimately resulted in Matthew's hospitalization.

The book we are reading is the book Matthew is writing from the computer at the hospital day center and, when he goes off his meds and holes up in his apartment, from the typewriter that his grandmother gave him. The book uses different fonts to indicate the different writing locales and intersperses handwritten letters from Matthew's social worker and drawings that he creates to illustrate his story. I can't quite decide if I liked the conceit of the different fonts or found it distracting -- it really rides the line -- but I did like the construct of the book and the way that Matthew's narrative voices changes as his mental health ebbs and flows. The movement between the present and the past and his slow movement to describing the accident with his brother and the aftermath of his psychotic break are well timed and effective.

Filer worked as a mental health nurse for ten years before writing this book, and that experience combined with the energy of the story resulted in a lot of excitement for this debut novel. Multiple publishing houses entered into a bidding war that increased publicity for the book before it even came out, and Filer went on to win awards a lot of favorable reviews for his work.

This is definitely a strong debut novel and Filer's decade-long experience as a mental health nurse has given him a unique perspective on his subject matter. That being said, I'm not sure it lives up to its bidding war / award winning hype. Still, this is a fast and unique read and worth your time.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Malice Matrimonial by Joan Fleming (1959)

When we were in New York for my sister's wedding last August, one of my favorite stops was at the Strand Book Store ("18 miles of books. Since 1927."). I'd recommend adding a stop at the Strand (and some extra room in your baggage) to anyone heading to NYC for a visit. I got this pretty brittle but barely read copy of Malice Matrimonial by Joan Fleming (1959) in the basement of the book store from a big table full of other ignored books of this type for only $1. That is my kind of table, folks.

Fleming was a British crime novelist who published over 30 novels from the 1940s through the 1970s. For those of you who care about this kind of thing (Dr. M), she didn't write her first one until she was 41 and she had a very successful career.

This is the first of Fleming's novels that I've read, and while I finished it over a week ago I still haven't been able to get my head around how I feel about it. Our hero, Henry Ormskirk, is a rather dull young man with interesting friends. He is dumped by his fiance, loses his job, and then goes to a party given by Venice, an exotic woman who owns an exclusive fashion boutique, with his roommate to cheer himself up. While there, Henry meets and quickly falls madly in love with Venice's daughter Pia, recently reunited with her mother in England after being raised by her father, a Count, in Italy. Things move at a brisk pace and before you know it Henry and Pia are married, and Henry has a new job drawing sketches of models in new dresses at Venice's store. The heat cools off soon after they start living together. Pia quickly learns that she is pregnant and a cooling marriage plus a baby that he doesn't feel much attachment too lead to a dull and wandering Henry who is soon back in the arms of his ex-fiance.

This is all a little weird but not that mysterious until Pia divulges that she was pregnant before she met Henry and then disappears after a big fight. Everyone is pretty sure Henry killed her, and his dopiness doesn't help matters much, but when the clues start slowly rolling in, they just don't add up.

This book is very dark and more than a little bitter with few likable characters or hopeful plot lines. That edge gives a color to the pretty pedestrian mystery that makes the book very readable, but also a little off-putting. Like I said, I still can't figure out what I thought of this. I'll need to mull this one over a little bit more, but if I run across any more Fleming bargains in the basement of a book store, I'd definitely scoop them up.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell (1999)

My lovely friend John loaned me his copy of Ghostwritten by David Mitchell (1999) since he knew how much I loved Cloud Atlas (reviewed here) when our book club read it a few years ago. [Note to DAFFODILS: Holy Shit, we read Cloud Atlas three years ago!] John never steers me wrong, and my love of David Mitchell has been proven before, so this one was right on target.

This is Mitchell's first novel and its structure would only seem unambitious if you happened to read Cloud Atlas first. Ghostwritten consists of nine chapters (and one brief coda) that each take place in a different location. The chapters stand alone except for (at first) a small connection between one and the next. As the book progresses, the connections become stronger, but the individual stories still stand on their own and their wildly different narrators and styles keep the reader reeling between the feeling of jumping between some masterfully written short stories and experiencing a whole new kind of novel.

The only chapter I didn't really fall in love with was the final chapter, "Night Train," which takes place in the booth of a grating late-night New York DJ named Bat Segundo. The connections in this bit pushed a little too hard for me, and the intentionally irritating DJ just, well, irritated me. This chapter does, however, get bonus points for featuring a brief appearance by Luisa Rey, who went on to take a key role in Cloud Atlas. I do like me some connections...

I feel like I've only read two David Mitchell novels because I like him so much that I don't want to rush through all of them. Reading Ghostwritten, though, has reminded me that I probably don't need to wait three years before reading another one. Highly recommended!